Penn State’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) recently named Natalie Hernandez DePalma as its new senior director.
DePalma started at Penn State in 2006 as a doctoral practicum counselor before transitioning to a staff psychologist — a role she held for six years. Prior to becoming senior director, she served as the co-interim director alongside Brett Scofield, who is now the associate director of CAPS and executive director for the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State.
We sat down with DePalma to talk about her new role and the importance of mental health on campus.
Onward State: What does your role as CAPS’ senior director entail?
Natalie DePalma: The director oversees the administrative operations of CAPS, including supervising a multidisciplinary staff of 60 dedicated team members that serve the clinical and referral needs of the University Park campus student community. Responsibility for the evaluation and assessment of our clinical services is another core role.
OS: How have your prior life and career experiences shaped your goals or vision surrounding mental health services?
NA: I was interested in psychology and child development when I attended college and earned bachelor’s degrees in both at Tufts University. Working as a family-based therapist after my master’s degree was instrumental in helping me understand systems work and philosophy. When I had the privilege to complete my training at Penn State CAPS for my doctoral degree, I fell in love with the evidence-based, iterative philosophy of Penn State’s counseling model and went on to make my career here.
OS: What is your favorite part about working in the mental health field, specifically in a college atmosphere?
NA: The students! Their perspective, perseverance, creativity, and leaning into change is a system I love to be a part of. It is incredible to be attached to an institution that produces relevant and utilized research and opportunities for connection, too. One of my children’s principles used to refer to herself as a “lead learner,” and I love that about working in a college atmosphere — that we all have the shared experience of continuing to learn together.
OS: What do you think is the biggest challenge that students face in the realm of mental health?
NA: When I ask students about their biggest hurdles to obtaining mental health care, many indicate that they don’t know where to start. One of the most significant challenges to improving mental health is the recognition that we need something in our lives to be different. Decreasing internal and external barriers to treatment are critical to providing students with their best next step toward feeling well again.
OS: How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we view mental health and mental health services?
NA: One of my favorite therapists, Esther Perel, noted that she thinks of the COVID-19 pandemic as a great accelerator, and disasters and crises tend to heighten our sense of what is important and how to prioritize our needs. In a deep way, COVID-19 has highlighted the need for us to lean into our emotions and into ourselves as primarily emotional beings. I think the pandemic has also accelerated the priority of mental health as critical to overall well-being and driven home the importance of communities placing resources in this domain.
OS: The last two years especially have been mentally challenging due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Why is it important now more than ever for people to take care of their mental health?
NA: Evidence indicates that compared to pre-COVID semesters, there has been an increase in “academic distress, social anxiety, family distress and eating concerns” during COVID. While these dimensions of need may change focus in the years ahead, currently, they seem to represent some of the biggest increases in challenges for students post-COVID. The focus on mental wellness now, more than ever, is multi-pronged.
First, we have gone through a collective event that has impacted us individually and systemically in change-worthy ways. We must grieve what we have lost and have compassion for ourselves for the consequences of this event on our lives and our psyche. Next, I hope we can focus on our well-being and our relationships. We know that life can be hard and that relationships buffer us from some of the most difficult events that life can deliver. Now, more than ever, is a time to return to the foundational components of individual and collective well-being and to focus on building and rebuilding our strong social networks.
OS: How have you handled adversity, and what advice would you give to students who are facing hardships of their own now?
NA: One of the values in Latin(x) culture is a concept called “familismo,” which is essentially dedication and commitment to connection or family above personal focus. I love the way this value intersects with systemic thinking. A system’s lens says that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is the way I have handled difficulty across my life — to lean on the support of my nuclear, extended, work, and Penn State families and friends. This Ratan Tata quote sums it up for me: “If you want to walk fast, walk alone; if you want to walk far, walk together”.
OS: What are some of your goals for CAPS that you want to accomplish as senior director of CAPS?
NA: I hope to keep building on the incredible legacy created by the previous leaders of our center. Ben Locke and Dennis Heitzmann are highly valued mentors of mine and created a supportive, dedicated center with an eye toward innovation. I hope to create more access for students in urgent need and continue to provide effective short-term treatment and long-term group opportunities for students to utilize. A particular goal I hold is to provide needed support and cross-unit collaboration for students who represent marginalized identities at Penn State.
OS: When you’re not working, what do you enjoy spending your free time doing?
NA: I love crafting, watching my children participate in their multiple activities, and taking walks that usually land me at a coffee shop. My favorite things to do in central Pennsylvania are to walk around Arts Fest, sit at Tussey in the summer, listen to music, and walk near Alumni Pond.
OS: Per Onward State tradition, if you could be any dinosaur which would you want to be and why?
NA: I love this question! I’d be a Dreadnoughtus — my grandmother is from Buenos Aires, and this was discovered in Argentina. I also love that its name means “fear nothing,” and it’s a herbivore but fierce.
Editor’s note: DePalma’s responses were lightly edited for clarity and grammar.